First of all, we’d like to say thanks to Frank Smethurst for loaning us his craft for a demo this week. We took it on the Roaring Fork downstream of Carbondale at 4500 CFS, which is as big as any water we fish with clients.
When you first set eyes on the NRS Freestone Drifter, it is very unassuming. It doesn’t look like much and to be honest, I thought the bow might turtle in a big wave and flip. But this boat wasn’t made to look good on a trailer. It was made for the water. Like a Labrador retriever, it rides very high in the water, even with 3 grown men and fishing gear. To this end, it is incredibly maneuverable—I would say a bit more so than a traditional drift boat. I attribute this to the carefully thought out hull design.
HOW DOES IT ROW?
Like a dream. The boat looks like a skiff allowing for better vision forward and a more open feel. The significant rocker in the bow and stern allows the Freestone to ride over all but the heaviest waves. Cemetery Rapid is a class III at this flow and we barely took on a drop of water. The Freestone rides over the waves equally when you are pushing forward or slowing down. The boat bottom is also bowed like a “frown” with the contact points on the chines. This allows for the stability and maneuverability that we typically see in a small cataraft, Unfortunately, it also allows for a small amount of water retention on the sides as the self-bailers are in the middle of the boat. Best keep a sponge or a hand bilge handy if you fish heavy water and want a completely dry boat. At 4500 CFS, the Roaring Fork is “bossy”. With a moderate amount of effort, the rower was able to hold the boat alongside seams to extend the anglers drift length. The Freestone got us into tight eddies to nose up, a must-do in high water. Although there weren’t too many rocks to bounce off of or slide over, the Freestone performed just like a raft when we needed it to. So now the rivers that were “raft-only” just got a new player on their roster.
The first thing we did when we put the boat in the water was to fill it with water and test out the self-bailers. As you can see, they are just a hole in the boat that allows water to escape using the natural buoyancy of the high-pressure air inside the floor and the chines. To be honest, it was really hard to dip a gunnel. It took two of us standing on the gunnel to start filling it with water. We filled it about 25% full of water and timed 2 minutes until the water was nearly gone. Not bad! It’s probably a bit slower than most self-bailing rafts, but the Freestone’s ability to ride over the waves sets it apart from some rafts out there. One thing that could prove problematic for the bailers is the cumulative collection of debris (flies, tippet, leaves, etc) that tends to pile up in boats. Daily washing and cleaning of the bailers would need to be done if you’re on the water every day. The self -bailers also come with easy on/off plugs to help prevent clogging or if you are on a stretch that does not require the bailers.
HOW DOES IT FISH?
If you’ve ever fished out of a 14’ raft, you’ll have a very similar experience. At 14’ long, it is very comfortable for two anglers and an oarsman. This boat was outfitted with pretty tight thigh hooks that kept the anglers completely locked in, which was good for stability in the heavy water. With stripping baskets and a couple of strategically placed cup holders (not included, but easily added), everything has its place. I did notice that if the angler in the stern had a little weight off-center, both the rower and the bow angler would notice. It made me feel like I was back in my drift boat! All in all, the Freestone fished like any of the crafts we have come to expect from a professional fishing guide perspective.
We put a 45qt Yeti in the front bay between the foot bar and the seat, which fit like a glove and did not move around at all in the rough water. For me, this is a BIG convenience upgrade from traditional fishing rafts because the rower does not have to get up to retrieve items from the cooler (Read: better professionalism on the water and a cooler that sits balanced, in the middle of the boat). There was still plenty of room on either side of the cooler for a boat bag or small dry bags. Under the rowers seat is a larger bay for storage. There’s even room to put an aluminum dry-box if you want to roll like a baller (more weight). We put a boat bag, a 54L dry bag, a 35L dry bag, and a bucket for trash all in this area with no problem. It proved to be a great way to organize gear to minimize the tangle factor for the stern angler.
Price: At $5,495, the price point on this craft is amazing. You would be hard-pressed to find a decent fishing raft or drift boat at this price used, not to mention new.
Durability. The boat comes with a 5 year retail warranty and a 3-year commercial warranty, which should give consumers some piece of mind, but as this is a new design, time will really tell how much of a beating this boat can take. I think you might see several fishing guides buy this craft, so you can ask them.